How can teenagers plan their nutrition

Youth eats differently

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Prof. Dr. Silke Bartsch

Young people and fast food are often mentioned in the same breath. But adolescents also like to eat at the family table. Experience in the school environment also shows that topics related to healthy eating are well received by young people, especially girls.

Adolescent eating behavior is different from that of other age groups. This is a historic novelty. Because it was only in interaction with the freedoms granted to children and young people that an age-related eating culture could develop. Today, adolescents - unlike in previous decades - can (co-) determine their food. They also influence the family's eating culture. In addition - also due to the youth cult of our society - youthful eating behavior has an influence on the general eating culture. The public consumption of snacks and the use of convenience products in the home are now generally popular.

What characterizes youth eating culture?

Food fulfills many functions. For example, eating not only ensures satiety and a supply of nutrients, but also creates cultural, social and personal identity. Basically, these functions are the same for all age groups. In the youth phase, however, eating has a different priority than in adulthood. For example, eating is seldom the focus of a culinary or health interest among young people, but also takes place or on the side. "The main thing is that it tastes good and makes you full!" Is a typical expression. Characteristic for the youth eating culture are primarily the refractions caused by the age-related development tasks. That means that eating is also about detachment from parents, about finding one's identity and locating one's place in society. Gender-typical eating behavior also manifests itself in this age phase. Young people usually want to belong to a group of the same age (peer group) and try their hand at without the presence of their parents or other adults. Accordingly, the importance and meanings of food for young people at home and on the go generally differ from one another.

Security at the family table

In family communities, there is a lot of relationship and upbringing about food. It gives the adolescents security and security, but at the same time also harbors the potential for conflict. The way everyday eating is organized in many families today makes it easier for young people to break away, which is characterized by separation and withdrawal. But at the same time you have the need for security and security.

The ambivalence between the desire to be cared for and independence is typical of the situation of young people in the family. On the one hand, common family meals are part of everyday life for the majority of young people, on the other hand, comparatively few wait for the common meal and prefer to take care of themselves. This apparent contradiction also illustrates the change in the function of family meals. It has largely lost its care function, but at the same time serves as a (voluntary) family communication center and as such is well valued by many young people.

Use on the refrigerator

The food supply is still largely ensured today by the family households. For example, when they feel hungry, young people prefer to help themselves from the refrigerator, cover a bread, bake a frozen pizza, etc. Most parents tolerate this eating behavior. Because common family (meal) times have to be coordinated and organized, which is difficult due to the different work, school and leisure activities. Parents are also relieved by the self-sufficiency of the adolescents. In response to the changes in households, a large range of easy-to-use convenience products has established itself on the food market, which accommodates the tendency towards self-sufficiency. It remains to be seen what role school catering will play in the long-term in nutritional provision and thus also in nutritional education due to the increasing all-day operation.

Snacks are the order of the day outside the home

In contrast to domestic eating habits, self-presentation and belonging to a peer group are important when traveling. This is part of the youth's identity development. Eating outside of the home is rather secondary, the focus is more on shared experiences. Accordingly, young people prefer fast and uncomplicated food that allows other activities on the side and does not burden the pocket money budget. Leisure interests and activities vary depending on lifestyle, which in turn influence eating (consumption) behavior. On the one hand, the preferences for certain foods play a role and, on the other hand, the possible food options, which can differ due to the leisure activities. For example, fitness-oriented boys rate chips and lemonade differently and consume them less than boys who spend their free time playing computer games. Eating behavior is always an expression of lifestyle and is used for social positioning.

The available market offer with its diverse possibilities for quick and individual eating outside the home meets this need. Fast food and snack products in the broader sense are suitable for staging yourself, since as lifestyle elements they are also means of expression. In addition, they can be bought by the youngsters within the limits of their pocket money. It should be noted that not all young people are prepared to spend their pocket money on food supplies equally and in all situations, as a predominantly pragmatic approach to hunger shows. At least some of them postpone their hunger every now and then in order to fall back on the refrigerator at home. Overall, youthful eating behavior cannot be reduced to a fast food culture, but is more complex. In addition to snacking outside the home, home care is important.

Body modeling eating behavior

Experience has shown that school offerings on healthy eating tend to attract interest from girls. They are well aware of the effects their eating habits have on their physical appearance. While they primarily associate “feeling good” and “being beautiful” with health, boys tend to associate it with “being strong”. In adolescence, one's own body is usually under constant (critical) observation due to the physical changes from child to man or woman. In this way, physical attractiveness and the effect it has on the opposite sex are naturally becoming increasingly important. Interest in nutritional issues is often expressed from this perspective and is seldom oriented towards "healthy nutrition" as adults understand it.

According to their gender-different physical conditions, boys and girls use their knowledge of nutrition to model their bodies differently. Boys, who mostly want a strong body, prefer to do (strength) sports in order to train their bodies and build muscles. However, increasing social pressure can be observed, which also induces boys to balance calories and to control their eating behavior or, in extreme cases, to consume so-called muscle building preparations.
Girls also consciously use exercise and sport to model their figure. They experience their bodies predominantly as a threat, unlike boys, in whom the changing fat-muscle ratio accommodates the body's wishes. Many girls therefore encounter the natural processes of change with restrictive eating behavior. For this purpose, energy-reduced diets are sometimes carried out as early as elementary school age. As they get older, the older girls often skip meals (preferably breakfast), do without so-called fattening foods and more. The problem with this is that hardly any young people are willing to change their eating style. This often leads to one-sided eating behavior, which harbors the risk of an undersupply of nutrients.

Let teenagers cook for themselves

As the above explanations show, many young people are only interested in their diet from their age-specific perspective and influence their eating behavior accordingly. However, more and more often they lack the necessary skills to be able to implement a healthy diet for themselves. As a result, young people's decisions are often reduced to choosing from the food on offer, which in turn is often limited to products from the supermarket.

One reason for the inadequate skills is, among other things, the disappearance of food preparation from the everyday life of adolescents - whether it is that parents, i.e. in most cases the mothers, put the already finished food on the table or in the refrigerator, or that they industrially prepared dishes only have to be warmed up. Young people are rarely involved in the preparation. In addition, they are generally reluctant to help with food preparation, because typical tasks for adolescents include setting the table, clearing the table or disposing of rubbish. Young people experience this auxiliary work as a degradation and restriction of their already achieved autonomy. Opportunities that encourage people to plan, shop and / or prepare meals together without patronizing offer the chance for a sense of achievement. This increases the confidence to be able to do something (experience of self-efficacy) and they are experienced with joy. Involvement in food preparation in family and school is therefore a good starting point for promoting everyday skills and arousing interest in healthy, home-made food.

Online version of the article:
Bartsch S. Young people eat differently. UGB-Forum 5/2011, pp. 214-217